Maria Bamford puts on her funny face

There's nothing funny about the Minnesota native's comedic success

Bamford moved into a cooperative on the West Bank and shaved her head. Jackie Kashian, a fellow Minnesota comic and close friend, met her around this time, and remembers that Bamford's car was covered with feminist stickers.

"Not just the bumper," Kashian says, "the walls, the doors, everything."

It was the early '90s, the heyday of Jerry Seinfeld-style observational comedy, but Bamford didn't cave to that trend. Her act "was always unique," says Kashian. "It came from a desire — and it still does today — to examine different issues, to say, 'I think this weird thing, why, what do I think about it,' and then go down the rabbit hole and see what comedy came out."

Bamford in her 2007 web series, The Maria Bamford Show
courtesy of Maria Bamford
Bamford in her 2007 web series, The Maria Bamford Show
Nicola Losik

Bamford used her violin on stage, either between jokes or to accentuate them — one of her bits was a musical interpretation of her relationships.

"It was more performance art," Bamford remembers. "I didn't really do the clubs, or standup per se, though I was trying to get into that."

One night, Bamford's family — Marilyn, dad Joel, and sister Sarah — came down from Duluth to see one of her sets. The night was bitterly cold, and as the family sat in the theater, Marilyn realized that her daughter was doing a spot-on impersonation of her.

Back in Duluth not long after, Sarah got a video of one of Maria's shows. When she watched it, she saw that her sister had added an impression of her, too. Sarah didn't think it was all that accurate, but decided to ask her friends.

"I showed my friends the tape, and they fell out of their chairs. Holding their guts, rolling around, all of it," Sarah remembers. "I was honestly confused, just like, is that me? But that's when I realized she captured something."

One day, at a shop in Minneapolis, Bamford picked up the book The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron. She remembers reading it and thinking, "Oh, I'm a comeeeedian!"

"That was super helpful," she says, "and sort of when I made the decision that this is what I'd like to do."

Between gigs, Bamford had graduated. In 1994, she got work playing a Star Trek character at the Mall of America (a Bajoran from Deep Space Nine). She spent her days doing meet-and-greets with Klingons and Vulcans, and eventually she was offered the chance to bring the role to L.A.

She felt she'd done everything she wanted to do in Minneapolis, so she went for it.

For the next decade, Bamford took stints as a baker and a bookshop clerk, but mostly racked up lots of hours temping. The part-time work gave her plenty of room to write and perform. One of the temp jobs even brought her to Nickelodeon, where she started doing voices for the popular cartoon CatDog.

In spring 1999, Bamford got one of her early breaks: a standup set on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Two years later, she made it onto The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Then in 2004 she joined the Comedians of Comedy tour, along with Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis, and Brian Posehn, and started expanding her reach. A year later, Netflix released a documentary based on their tour, and Comedy Central picked it up as a TV series. She was picking up a small but devoted following.

"Comedians of Comedy was instrumental in bringing her not just to a wider audience, but to her own audience," her manager Smith says. "Her quirkiness and her vulnerability was a natural fit for television, and those audiences respected the fact that she wasn't talking down to them."

By 2007, "The Bammer" decided to rework some of the material from an earlier one-woman show into The Maria Bamford Show: just her, a few rotating accessories, and her voices. Two years later, she got a gig as an over-eager holiday shopper in national Target commercials, a role she reprised for two more seasons. This year, she returned to television for a two-episode part on Louis C.K.'s sitcom Louie.

In 2010, Bamford celebrated her 40th birthday with her family, including sister Sarah.

"I just remember saying, 'Man, the world is your oyster,'" Sarah recalls. "'How big do you want to let it get?'"

The Maria Bamford Show is fictional. But like much of Bamford's comedy, it's a riff on the autobiographical.

In the facts column, Bamford did grow up in Duluth, and The Maria Bamford Show gets a few good laughs out of accents, Christian Bible camp, and cinnamon rolls "the size of your head."

The difference, Kashian explains, is that with the Minnesota material, Bamford goes a step deeper.

"Maria took some of those stereotypes and delved into the psychological," Kashian says. "Like, not just that Minnesota Nice exists, but what causes it."

Her family on the show is, similarly, drawn from life. Which meant they had to come to terms with being parodied. For Sarah, seeing her sister's impersonation of her became easier once she realized the viewer's response.

"So many people have dysfunctional families and can see the degree of madness and laugh at it," she says. "It's a gift to them."

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